AFI DOCS Film Festival – Part 1

The MN Movie Man loves a good documentary, so what a pleasure it was to be invited to virtually attend the AFI DOC Film Festival that was held June 22-27. Just coming off the Tribeca Film Festival and having family commitments, I had to be somewhat conscientious with my time and decided on around eight titles to cover in these next few columns. Thanks for bearing with some slight pauses in publishing while I’ve been consuming a lot of movies to bring to you now! So many wonderful films are on their way — get excited!!!

Storm Lake
It was truly by chance that one of the first titles this MN native chose for the 2021 AFI DOCS Film Festival was STORM LAKE from directors Beth Levison and Jerry Risius about the Iowa town’s small local newspaper.  Imagine my surprise when MN senator Amy Klobuchar appeared in the opening to introduce the film and offer her words of support for print journalism at the local level.  It was an encouraging note to begin what would be a strong opening documentary feature that examines a period of time for the paper that prides itself on solid news reporting on topics that affect its community as well as human interest pieces that build up the spirits of its citizens.  This isn’t a hard-hitting investigative piece, and you aren’t going to find Risius and Levison trailing rumpled editor Art Cullen as he uncovers some big conspiracy that brings him national acclaim.  Instead, the camera unobtrusively captures Cullen and his family of employees (literally, his brother, wife, and son each have daily roles that are central to the success of the paper) making good on their respected reputation as a Pulitzer Prize winning publication and one that noted politicians happily offer interviews to.  Elizabeth Warren, Chuck Grassley, Klobuchar, and Pete Buttigieg are just a few of the familiar politico faces seen leading up to the disastrous Iowa caucus in 2020.  That’s when the film starts to stray a tad and get swept up in a political maelstrom, the pandemic, and their own financial woes.  As a reminder of the value of paper likes the Storm Lake Times, STORM LAKE is an intelligent curio to discover but when it starts to focus in on actual reporting it weakens because that’s when it can’t quite separate itself from other films about journalistic beats.

The Lost Leonardo
I know what looks nice on my walls but I couldn’t tell a fake Leonardo da Vinci from a real Portia de Rossi and that’s why films about art and art history are endlessly fascinating to me.  I missed THE LOST LEONARDO, a documentary on I know what looks nice on my walls, but I couldn’t tell a fake Leonardo da Vinci from a real Portia de Rossi and that’s why films about art and art history are endlessly fascinating to me.  I missed THE LOST LEONARDO, a documentary on a much-hyped possible da Vinci rare work, when it premiered at Tribeca a few weeks back and am glad to have had a chance to discover it at AFI Docs and find that it’s as intriguing as described.  A painting called the Salvator Mundi that was found in a garage with a number of issues has the look of a da Vinci devotee but, once a 5-year restoration is completed, is then attributed to the master himself.  This raises its value through the roof and sets it off on a journey all over the globe, where museums want to display it, critics want to disprove it, and collectors want to own it.  Directed by Andreas Koefoed, THE LOST LEONARDO is part detective fable and part tall tale as we watch a whopper of a story unfold through interviews and some cleverly disguised lessons on the history of da Vinci’s works and style.  It can get a little dense at times with subjects reading (in French) long back and forth emails that are then subtitled, but digging in when these moments arise makes the payoff that much sweeter.  It’s a refined film with pretty much everyone that speaks making 20 times more money each year than we’ll ever earn, but it’s nicely rendered and fun to follow along in the search for answers.

The Neutral Ground
Like many, I grew up watching films that portrayed a false impression of the South, both pre- and post-Civil War.  It wasn’t until later as an adult when I learned more about the myth of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy that my eyes were opened to many of the blatant lies that were shown in entertainment and published in books.  Having a little knowledge of this going into CJ Hunt’s stellar documentary THE NEUTRAL GROUND helps understand just a little of why it was so pivotal that the Confederate monuments in the city of New Orleans be removed.  When the City Council voted to remove four of the most well-known monuments in 2015, it set off a wave of protests and shone a spotlight once more upon an ages old argument of reverence vs. relevance.  A comedian and contributor to The Daily Show, Hunt came to NOLA to learn more about not just the importance of this decision, but also to document the protests that sprung up from supporters of the Confederate movement that wanted to preserve these figures that represented troubling aspects of Southern history for black people.  The result is an extremely well made, informative, thought-proving, and reflective piece that leaves you with a checklist of items to think through further and do your own homework on.  Hunt applies the right amount of humor to his interviews, carefully sidestepping snark sarcasm in favor of asking the right kind of probing questions that let his subjects dig their own deserved grave. 

Watch THE NEUTRAL GROUND on @POVdocs starting July 5th

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain
Scheduled perfectly by the AFI Docs Film Festival on Bourdain Day, ROADRUNNER: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is an intriguing look at a very complicated man, a documentary that balances a warts and all approach with a deeply felt sense of loss at the empty seat at the table left by his suicide in 2018.  I’ve had my ups and downs with Bourdain over the years, starting out hot with his early entry into popular entertainment courtesy of his bestselling book that was later turned into a very short-lived television show starring newcomer Bradley Cooper.  Bouncing right into a hybrid of travel/cooking show that he largely pioneered, Bourdain became known for his extreme tastes and willingness to try just about anything and that’s about when I started to drift away to less spicier meals that didn’t always seek to press the hardest of buttons with such vigor.  Bourdain just rubbed me the wrong way, and from what I gather in director Morgan Neville’s sharp interviews in his highly stylish doc, many of his closest friends felt that way at one time or another as well.  That’s the Tony many saw on camera but not the one that struggled with crippling self-doubt, depression, or a need to be loved/perfect.  Neville interviews numerous people in his life: bosses, co-workers, colleagues, ex-wives, friends, and they all paint a picture of a man that lived hard and loved at the same speed.  At nearly two hours, ROADRUNNER is a lot of Bourdain to take and the trajectory of his life is approached by Neville in fairly standard measures, so it plays easily even when it grows slightly staid.  The final fifteen minutes, when discussing Bourdain’s death and the aftermath are when Neville’s expertise as a filmmaker really show and when the emotional ripple through his circle of friends takes its notable toll.  Fans of Bourdain will, I think, find this hard to watch and rightfully so…and I think that’s Neville’s point to show the impact of such an act.  Bourdain was a popular personality and I’m confident this will prove to be a project that is much sought-after and not just by foodies that know their salad fork from their dinner fork. This has crossover potential for even those with casual knowledge of Bourdain.

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